Languages – When They Die, Culture Goes With Them

July 29, 2013 Kristance Harlow
Soup and Language
I admit, shamefully, that I am monolingual. Born and raised in the USA and I can only speak English. I know the most basic Spanish and French, and can say a few phrases in Italian, Hindi, and Spiti. I am being generous when I say basic. I took a year of Italian in college, and with a tutor and extra help from the professor I barely squeaked by with a C. Today the only thing Italian does for me is muddle my memory when I’m trying to learn Spanish. I took four years of French in high school but I never had to use it. When I finally went to France 6 years after graduating from high school I could only ask the most basic questions and tell everyone (in French), “I don’t speak French, sorry.”  I took one Spanish class when I was 12 years old and never forgot what I learned. There is quite a lot of Español in the States and I think most people encounter it enough to know at least some words. I picked up more years later when I made really good friends with some Chileans. Now, I have an Argentinian boyfriend and I’m moving there by the end of the summer, so I will have have to learn it!

How Language Affects Thinking

These are common languages though, English is the most widely spoken language in the world and an estimated 500 million people speak Spanish. There are 7,000 languages spoken today, with 46 owing their continued existence to their language’s sole speaker. In an increasingly globalized world why should we keep so many ‘useless’ languages? What is the point of being able to speak in a way that no one else can understand?  Language teaches us cultural values, shapes the way we think about the world, it structures our communications, and in turn reflects our learned cultures.
Before you start thinking that people who speak certain languages are dumber than people who speak other languages, let’s back up. We are not constrained by our mother tongue. Rather, our native language tells us what we need to express (not what we can express). Cultural diversity is just as important to the health of this planet as biodiversity, we need as many ideas as we can get!

Fascinating Findings

Russian has more words for light and dark hues of blue. When compared to English speakers, Russian speakers could more easily differentiate between the shades of blue.
The Pirahã are a group of people who live in Brazil, some are close to the trans-Amazonian highway and others are further away along the tributaries. Their language has some distinct characteristics (although not entirely unique as far as linguistics goes). It is the only surviving group of the Mura language, as other speakers have begun speaking Portuguese. They use other quantifiers besides numerals. Their family relationships are referred to simply (there is one word for both mother and father) and from current research it appears the Pirahã do not keep specific tabs on kinship beyond immediate family. As a culture, they are encouraged to focus on the present and to not make generalizations about other times. The Pirahã are not incapable of counting, they just don’t value it. As a language isolate with only a few hundred speakers, it’s likely to die off eventually. If the Pirahã language dies, so does their unique perspective.
Language constructs our understandings of time, some indigenous languages around the world use the cardinal directions of North, East, South, and West instead of left and right. Those who speak these languages tend to have significantly better spatial orientation.

Want to learn more?

National Geographic has a great program called Talking Dictionaries, which gives you an interactive and auditory experience to learn about languages that our world is losing.
Rosetta Stone is working with communities to save languages, you can learn about their work here.
Get involved with Endangered Languages, a collaborative online project to encourage and “protect global linguistic diversity
Or befriend this kid named Timothy who learned 20 languages by the age of 16 (including the clicking language).
Wow, I just watched that video and feel even more shame for only speaking one language. This kid has the right idea.
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  1. Rose L on July 30, 2013 at 5:30 am

    My 61 year old brain often has a difficult time just remembering English!

  2. Alex Malex on July 29, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    Amazing! This kid has a bright future, that&#39;s for sure. I like your approach and reasoning that when languages are lost so are the unique perspectives of the culture. Great post, thanks for writing it! :)<br /><br />Alex<br />-The Traveling Footprint

    • Kristance Harlow on July 29, 2013 at 9:35 pm

      Thanks for the read! Yes, he’s really an inspiration. Languages definitely hold so much cultural information, when we lose them we lose a lot!

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